“This past week, my unit entered its third quarantine since March, because two prisoners tested positive — meaning classes and other activities are canceled,” Christopher Blackwell wrote in the Washington Post back in December.
Still, to retrieve meals from the chow hall — which is closed for in-person eating — I must walk shoulder to shoulder with 20 to 50 other men up and down two stairwells that are about five feet across. For a half-hour a day, I am let out of my cell with 20 other prisoners to make a phone call. If I’m not lucky enough to be among the first in line for the 10 phones, I stand and wait with the others in front of open-barred occupied cells. And when I do get to a phone, I put my face next to a receiver someone else has just used, with no cleaning between calls. (I’ve seen people take one of their socks off and put it over the receiver.) Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is banned in the prison, except for use by guards, as if the chance that someone might drink it for a buzz is a bigger risk than contracting the virus.
The piece, written by Blackwell from inside the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington State, was ushered along to publication in the Post through the efforts of a group called Empowerment Avenue. Launched in June of last year by New York-based freelance journalist Emily Nonko and incarcerated podcaster and reporter at the San Quentin News Rahsaan Thomas, Empowerment Avenue partners up incarcerated writers and reporters with volunteers on the outside who work with them on conceptualizing, editing, and pitching pieces to mainstream publications — a process that they are often cut off from of while imprisoned — and then, importantly, gets them paid for their work. Thus far their efforts have led to sixty seven pieces from twenty five writers being published (earning them $16,000) in publications like the Huffington Post, Business Insider, Solitary Watch, Jewish Currents and many others, including this one by Wesley Williams for The New Republic earlier this year.
At 5 a.m., I’m awoken by the bell and roll over to turn on my light so the corrections officer can see that I’m alive. After the C.O. finishes the morning count, I start getting ready for work. My cell opens around 6:40 a.m., and I make my way up a steep set of stairs to the mess hall for a breakfast that consists of lukewarm, lumpy oatmeal and toast. Then it’s out the main building to the warehouse to start my day at the tailor shop. With its gray concrete walls and giant, industrial-size windows, the place gives me the feeling that this institution has been here for a long time and will be here long after I’m gone.
From 7:20 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., I sit at a sewing machine putting collars on T-shirts, one after another. I get paid 26 cents an hour. With these wages, you would think that this warehouse is located outside the United States, beyond the reach of our labor laws, but my work site is the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York—the state’s largest prison.
“There are so many aspects of prison life that aren’t told and they should be reflected in the media,” Nonko told me over the phone this week.
Too often our media institutions are themselves complicit in upholding the destructive systems of mass incarceration and policing. The idea here, in part, is that getting more incarcerated voices published might make some headway in pushing back against that way of thinking.
It’s also a boon for the writers themselves.
“We’ve found that writing and reporting is often, I don’t want to say rehabilitative, but it’s kind of amazing to see that when people participate in this work they start to feel connected to a broader writing community,” Nonko said. “They feel like they have more agency living in an oppressive system, they have a voice people are listening to on the outside.”
We spoke at length about the impetus for starting the project with Thomas, and the rather difficult work that goes into producing the pieces. Freelancing and pitching and getting paid is hard enough for a person on the outside. Doing it while imprisoned takes an extra level of dedication.
They’re also accepting new volunteers at the moment so if you’re a reporter and this seems like work you’d like to get involved with please fill out this survey here. Others who want to donate can send money to this fundraiser they’re doing in collaboration with Apogee Journal.
You can read my conversation with Nonko below. Hold on real quick though.
Those of you on the free email list will have missed the last few pieces sent out to paid subscribers. In this one I dug into Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin’s casual and galling indifference to the suffering of their constituents and the American public in general.
Joe and Kyrsten can very calmly and within the bounds of the rules advocate for mass suffering without consequence — and barely even get off their asses to explain why they think we all deserve to eat shit — and we can’t even say what we think they have coming. …How are people like this walking around out there not constantly bedeviled? I am routinely bedeviled and I haven’t even done anything harmful! I can barely kill a spider without having an existential crisis over it. I am sometimes overcome by weltschmerz whenever I throw out an old toothbrush — you’ve served me well old friend but now it’s your time to go — that type of thing. And yet these people whose job is to represent our interests seem to float freely through the world unbothered and unmolested by either conscience or grief. What has it got to be like to be able to live like that?
And then this weekend I went long and meandering and stream-of-consciousness — “one of the good ones” I thought anyway — on Catholicism and suffering and the show Midnight Mass and The Sandman comics and dead fathers and robots and most importantly Tom Brady vs. The Patriots.
There was some Vox piece about Midnight Mass that everyone was really pissed off about the other day in which the writer was disappointed that the show is too religious and that makes it less effective horror or something who even knows people can write anything they want out there these days. One of the typical responses to the piece I saw on Twitter was how it seemed to overlook that Catholicism Is Real is like an entire genre of horror unto itself maybe one of the most iconic and that is true for sure. There’s good reason for that too because if all of the Catholic shit were real it would be just about the most terrifying thing I can think of besides for one other thing which is what if absolutely none of it is.
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Ok here’s me and Nonko.
How did the idea for Empowerment Avenue come together?
I’m based in New York but I have a friend who was volunteering at San Quentin in the Bay Area, and she invited me in in 2018. Through that visit I got connected with members of the San Quentin News, which is an incredible prison newspaper. There are very few of those — there used to be more — but they’ve kind of maintained the prison reporting tradition.
I started talking with the reporters there and was inspired by their work. At that point they were starting a magazine. That evolved to reporters there that were interested in freelancing. The San Quentin News does incredible work, but at the end of the day it’s produced by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Freelancing offered an opportunity to do more in depth work and work that was more critical of the administration. Talking with the reporters we realized there were so many hurdles because the reporters inside don’t have internet or email access. So we worked to see what it could look like with the intermediary digital work and connecting them to editors. I had a conversation with Rahsaan Thomas in 2019, we started talking about doing this work, and he had a broader vision of formalizing it under a program and scaling it up and looking at how we could forge creative economies inside and outside of prison. Rahsaan co-founded a non-profit while he was at San Quentin, Prison Renaissance, so we had a home to do the work under. We formalized the program in the summer of 2020. It was kind of an interesting time to take off. Of course everyone was at home or protesting, so there was a lot of interest in how writers and editors might be able to support work like this. We got quite a bit of interest from just a single email shout out on Study Hall saying we were looking for volunteers.
How many did you get?
We closed down interest at fifty volunteers because we were at such a small capacity. Rahsaan recruited writers from inside San Quentin and I recruited writers I had read through the Marshall Project’s Life Inside column and we took off.
I think it’s important to note that everyone inside was going through Covid in one way or another, and San Quentin went through the worst outbreak in the country at that time, so we had a combination of interest from writers and editors on the outside, and a real desire from reporters on the inside to tell the stories of how Covid was impacting their lives inside prison. I don’t want to speak for Rahsaan, but in just relaying our conversation, he said there was a real push from writers on the inside to be more critical of the department in their reporting. Especially at San Quentin where there was such a failure. The reporting coming out was some of the strongest. There was a real desire to call out the administration for these outbreaks that took over the prisons.
Are reporters on the inside subject to censure by the prisons for their internal work?
There aren’t a lot of prison newspapers, so it’s not like there are a lot of examples. The Angolite is the most famous out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It’s also famous in that the administration really clamped down and the coverage has been very limited. The administration has a lot of power. They can allow access and freedom of press and they can take it away. It depends on the people in the prison administration. With the San Quentin News they have an agreement with the CDCR that most of the reporting is around rehabilitation, what people are doing inside to run programs, education. Those are important stories that are not typically told about incarcerated people. But that coverage doesn’t necessarily include investigative reporting or reporting critical of the prison administration. The guys have a lot of freedom and leeway, and I’ve reported on it talking to them, and they wouldn’t say they were censured. It’s a real news room. Like any newsroom you’re dealing with the powers that be, but there’s a reason that the freelancing work you’re seeing from writers like Rahsaan Thomas and Kevin Sawyer, particularly around Covid, that those are published as freelance stories and not in the San Quentin News.
It’s usually out of sight out of mind for the public at large when it comes to life inside prison. People probably have no idea what’s going on in the prison in their community unless they have a family member inside. Is that one of the chief benefits of something like this as you see it?
I think the vision in the beginning is that we wanted to know what kind of support incarcerated writers needed and do our best to provide it. But there are so many publications out there that are by and large cut off if you’re incarcerated. Incarcerated people should be published in all of them in my opinion. Stories not just about prison conditions, which is what a lot of stories are and those are important, but also parenting in prison. We’re working on a story with someone about how difficult romantic relationships are in prison, but how important they are as a lifeline and a support network. Food in prison. There are so many aspects of prison life that aren’t told and they should be reflected in the media. So that is a big goal. Asking writers what they want to write about, and trying to find the right publications, because often they just don't realize... We have a trans writer and right now there are a lot of publications that are excited to include a trans woman’s experience. So how can we facilitate those connections?
The other thing is we are trying to push editors into not just having the byline but also to be thinking deeply about what it’s meant to be excluding incarcerated people from their pages. What it means is that many of these publications rely on many people with no experience with the impacts of the system to be reporting on it. How do you authentically make space in your publication for incarcerated writers? That goes beyond, oh, we’re gonna include someone’s byline and pat ourselves on the back. I think the media industry does a lot of Diversity! Look at us! We’re doing it. And the systems haven’t been changed enough to really challenge the power structures, why the media has held up mass incarceration. I’d say that’s been one of the main pillars that’s been able to hold up mass incarceration. How can we challenge that by making space for voices they haven’t included.
I’m highly critical in here on the way we talk about incarceration and policing in the media. There’s this very rich and deep vein in the traditions of the media where they seem to consider themselves a deputized branch of law enforcement. Particularly local TV news. I wonder if this project can help it become less of a tokenized thing… like, wouldn’t it be nice if this wasn’t even something someone like me was writing a story about? Look: incarcerated writers in mainstream publications! I wonder if there’s a point where we can remind editors that these are human beings, not just people who deserve to be punished, and give them back some of their humanity.
There is an editorial attitude, and it mostly lives at the larger legacy publications, the attitude of punishment. That our reporters must disclose their conviction, or somehow work it into their stories, even if it’s not relevant to the reporting. We had submitted an op-ed and the editor had wanted to know if the writer had apologized for the reasons why he was in prison. The story was about the failure to pass meaningful criminal justice legislation. It was not an op-ed about why he was in prison and the work that he had done to make amends. There’s space for that essay too, but a writer shouldn’t be forced in every piece, especially when they’re trying to talk about policy that impacts their day to day lives, to come back to what they did and how they’re going to answer for it.
Our writers have…their convictions are very serious, and we want to be mindful of the question of how victims might feel if they see that byline. Those are larger conversations I can’t really answer at the moment, but it is happening in the space of prison journalism. But the answer is not silencing these writers. I don’t think we get anywhere by saying your conviction is this, so you’re banned from being in the public sphere forever. The majority of folks in prison are coming home at some point anyway. We’ve found that writing and reporting is often, I don’t want to say rehabilitative, but it’s kind of amazing to see that when people participate in this work they start to feel connected to a broader writing community, they feel like they have more agency living in an oppressive system, they have a voice people are listening to on the outside. There are reasons to do this work, but I understand in some cases it requires tough conversations. But when folks are coming at it with a really suspicious and negative viewpoint it’s hard to have a nuanced conversation.
I’m sure a lot of the editors who would turn up their nose at these people would be happy to publish an op-ed by a retired general in charge of drone strikes in Afghanistan who’s now on the board at Raytheon or whatever who’s killed a thousand people and not even think twice about it.
Yeah, it makes me think about how there are people in our society that we want to punish, especially if you’re incarcerated. That’s an easy way to say, ok, these are the people we’re going to punish. And most of them had been extremely marginalized before they became incarcerated. They had been failed. These are not horrible monsters, these are people where the system has let them down, and they’ve made decisions that reflected broken systems in many cases. So it’s like, ok, we can punish this group, then there’s a group we don’t apply the same mindset to. And then it’s if we’re going to ask incarcerated writers to be accountable, let’s ask the media industry to be accountable. Let’s ask these editors who have upheld these systems of mass incarceration and punishment and these reporting tactics that have been used for decades to keep people in cages to to be accountable so it’s not this one way street.
For sure. Although now that we’re talking about it I don’t know that I would wish a career in freelance journalism on anyone.
Yeah! But a lot of the writers we work with aren’t necessarily thinking of becoming full time writers or freelancers when they come home. A lot of the time the writing intersects with advocacy work. A lot of them are advocates inside so they’re interested in, say, learning to write op-eds that reflect the advocacy they’re doing. Some are interested in other writing formats. It’s not necessarily that you're going to come home and become a freelance journalist. Although we have some writers at San Quentin who will have staff jobs when they come home if they want them.
It’s not necessarily a job’s training program.
Right. It’s more we have people that want to write right now and let’s see how we can support them. Each story is kind of a journey, and it’s really hard to get each story out in the world, so that’s what we have capacity to do at the moment.
There’s certainly a profound and rich tradition of literature written from prison for as long as we’ve had literature. I wonder if some have aspirations for fiction, writing novels at that sort of thing.
Yes there is a lot of interest in fiction, poetry, and books. A lot have written books inside. We have focused mostly on journalism. In the second volunteer outreach we’re doing we’re trying to get more diversity of writing experiences with our volunteers on the outside so we can start to address creative writing aspirations. PEN does really amazing work in that regard in supporting creative and literary work.
I’m working with a creative writer helping to submit his work to literary journals, and it’s really tough. It’s like worse than pitching freelance work. It’s barely paid. It’s a lot of rejection. I almost think that’s a harder world to break into unless you’re just deeply, deeply talented and just have a voice. And most people don’t. Most people need to go get their masters in literature, they need support and practice to get to that level. Incarcerated people are cut off from that. With journalism and personal essay writing it’s been a little easier access to entry. The payment isn’t stellar, but that’s another big part of this. Rahsaan’s feeling is that incarcerated people’s work is devalued in informal ways and in the very formal way of prison labor paying pennies on the hour. So a big part of this work is pushing for compensation and getting writers paid.
What are the practical concerns of doing this? For example, today in Massachusetts the legislature is having a hearing on a no-cost prison calls bill. And we know all around the country these private companies are coming in with fucking tablets and charging for calls and you have to print out emails. All this shit. That seems like it would all present a huge pain in the ass to work back and forth on edits. So how does it work?
Communication costs money. We have a bit of funding that we provide for communications stipends to volunteers and for the writers inside. Most of the writers are on JPay, the email messaging system. JPay sucks and it costs money to send every single message. But it facilitates us to do the work in a relatively fast manner. San Quentin writers don’t have tablets or email access, so it takes longer because we have to rely on snail mail. We just get creative. Sometimes it’s hopping on the phone with people to wrap up edits. If stuff gets blocked in JPay and they come up with reasons why they deny messages we’ll go to snail mail. It’s constant flexibility to try to get the work done.
We have a writer right now who was transferred to the hole, so we’ve transferred to snail mail and the phone. But she’s still writing. It’s a lot to ask of volunteers so we want to prepare people for the constant improvisation required for this work.
And how do you get people paid?
Every writer has a different way they want to get paid. If you pay them directly by sending a check through the prison the prison often takes a major cut of that money. A lot of times they’ll have a family member they want the money to go to. By and large publications have been open to that, sending the check to someone else. Rahsaan has an outside friend with a bank account for him, some do that. Often it’s finding a family member who will hold it for them, and send some money in if they need money for commissary or whatever. It can be a headache.
Can you highlight a couple pieces you’re particularly proud of coming out of the project?
Chris Blackwell landed in the Washington Post early on the program. He and his volunteer Jamie have an incredible partnership, they’ve become collaborators and friends. That story was really hard on both of them. They were working with time constraints, there was a lot of conversations that had to happen with the editor about what it means to publish an incarcerated writer. They put a ton of effort into that. And to see that in the opinion pages of the Washington Post was really meaningful. Not that we are always seeking the “approval” of these bigger publications, but at the end of the day that’s a paper politicians and policy makers are reading, so I think it matters that they’re going to see an incarcerated person published in those pages.
Recently Rahsaan published something in Shadow Proof, an abolitionist publication. It’s about what organizing looked like inside San Quentin responding to the Covid outbreak. They had an incredible organizing campaign inside and out to bring attention to their situation. To me that’s an excellent example of a story that an outside reporter could not tell.
I just read one by Wesley Williams in The New Republic about working for like 20 cents an hour or something.
Yeah and that ended up on their Work Sucks vertical. Maybe the editors weren’t necessarily thinking let’s highlight incarcerated voices on this vertical, but it was a perfect perspective and story when we’re talking about how work sucks. I loved that essay too. I’ll also call out Jessica Sylvia, a trans writer in Washington State, the writer I mentioned who’s currently in the hole for a bogus charge against her. She’s been putting out some amazing essays about her organizing, her experience being a trans woman in a men’s prison. She has a piece coming out with THEM, so it’s been a several months’ endeavor with Conde Nast.
So you are in fact looking for new volunteers right now?
We have a form where we’re accepting folks that are interested. We realize not everyone interested is going to be able to commit to the full scale of the work, because it’s a big commitment. We don’t want to step around that. It’s easier to be upfront.
What if people just want to send money?
We have a partnership with Apogee Journal, and we’re publishing all incarcerated writers and artists in the journal and compensating everyone. There’s a fundraiser up. All the money we raise is just going to pay the contributors to the journal.